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Patrick Geddes

Tragedy at Glencoe


Tragedy at Glen Coe (Glencoe)
A Historical Perspective
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NOTE:::PLEASE READ: - This is a Highlanders perspective.

This is a very sensitive subject to Scots, both pro-Campbell and con. Whilst I do not apologise for the essay (it was after all a perspective from a Highland Scots point of view) I do understand the feelings of modern day Campbells. I do NOT hold (or blame) present day Campbells responsible for the actions of their forefathers, nor should anyone else. I am sorry if anyone takes this personally. It was not intended to be a personal attack on everyone with the name of Campbell. It is simply history.

Now for the story......

Tragedy at Glen Coe (Glencoe).

A Historical Perspective**__ **see explanation at bottom.

In 1688, William of Orange, asked the English Parliament to oust the current King James VII of Scotland and James II of England because of James II's own rule that stated: "...attending a Covenanting (a secret meeting of Scots Presbyterians) act of worship was a capital crime", and many Scots Presbyterians paid the penalty, losing any love for James II they might have had. James II alienated all the peoples support he depended on, and he was ousted from the throne of England and Scotland in 1688, the last of the Stewart Kings.

He had been ousted, primarily, by William of Orange, a Dutchman living in England and with the strong of encouragement of the English Parliament. Whilst James II accepted his exile, others did not, and they fought back. The intensely brutal battles went back and forth. Scots Protestants fought English Protestants, both fought the Catholics.

Many Highlanders, who still had Catholic and/or Episcopalian beliefs, or at least empathy for their Irish cousins, fought with zeal against the English church and especially against the Lowland Scots Covenanters (later Presbyterians). Here is an eyewitness account of the Highland anger from battle of Killecrankie: "The regular (English and Lowland Scots governmental British) troops followed their routine of firing a musket volley and then fixing bayonets to charge. They had no time to fix the bayonets before the wild Highlanders were on them, screaming and flailing their Claymores" (6 foot 2-handed sword).

"General MacKay's , (British) men were killed in the hundreds".

The fierce battles went on.......................

Scotland didn't quite settle down to peaceful times, despite their victories - old divisions to precarious to be thrown out. Loyal or not to William of Orange, they had a bitter sense of grievance against him. Many Scots objected to the intolerance, anti-Presbyterian intolerance, of the Stewart (or Stuart in it's French spelling) Kings. They were almost equally outraged by the tolerance of William. This is somewhat typical of the confusing Scottish/English relationship.

Some Scottish legends claim William of Orange as the valiant champion of the Protestant cause against the Catholics. (Of course Highland opinions on the matter varied considerably). The "Protestant Champion" King William did rid Britain of a Catholic King -- James II and VII (of England and Scotland respectively). It was, in fact, just a political manoeuver against James II, not a religious one. William of Orange was on friendy terms with the Pope -- had Catholics in his army in highest ranking areas, and more. But, inevitably, history still sees William of Orange, of the Royal House of Hanover, as the patron saint of hardline Protestantism. It simply wasn't that simple; It simply wasn't the truth.

Thankfully, at least by all appearances, the religious wars of fury, hate and blood came slowly to a halt. With religious peace or tolerance, came the need for political peace, particularly among the Highlanders, who were largely cut off from Lowland society, and who included many subjects still loyal to the deposed King James II and the different faith that many Highlanders, though not all, still clung to -- in a "Scottish way" That, is typical of Highlander stubborness and determination.

The Glencoe Tragedy

The Valley Glen Coe.
Unfortunately, William of Orange was seen as a hero to many (mostly Lowland) Scots and Englishmen; He was simply not very interested in Scotland. His minister for Scotland , John Dalrymple "Master of Stair", who took charge of the Royal Ordinance that all Highland Chiefs of Highland clans must abandon the old Stuart (Stewart) loyalty and swear fealty to William of Orange.

Opinion: The "Orange" in William of Orange represents Williams origins (Dutch "Orange" party, eventually to become the house of Hanover), and any Scot who wears the "diced" Balmoral hat with red checkered pattern, is saying essentially that they, support William's British (now more English than Scottish) government -- English domination of their own Scottish traditions. Most think it means a loyalty to Protestanism.

Most Scots (American, Canadian and Australian Scots also) , don't realise the significance of this or this author believes that many would wear the non-checkered Balmoral, Tam and Glengarry hats.

Highlanders swearing loyalty or fealty to any King is a diffucult thing to accomplish. During a time when a large portion of Scots Highlanders were still Catholic, due mostly to the "Auld Alliance" with Catholic France. To swear loyalty to the anti-Catholic, anti-Stuart , anti-Scots Highlander; anti-French (Scots Ally) and on top of it all, swear to an English King from Holland! Not even an English born English king.

The English King, William of Orange and his advisors, felt it was "necessary" to deal with the troublesome Highland Scots. The Scots had been in rebellion over King James II & VII being exiled in France, and these rebellions led to the Jacobite rebellions against England. Note that the Jacobite rebellions also included many Lowland families as well (such as the Grahams), but they were initially supported only by Highland clans. So the King of England, William of Orange sent his man, Dalyrmple, known as "Master of Stair of Scottish Affairs", to force the Highland Chiefs to swear an oath of loyalty to William and abandon exiled James II & VII. But the Stair (Dalyrmple) had a personal grudge against a small sect of MacIans of the Clan MacDonald, for participating in the rebellions and, he claimed, cattle reiving (stealing). The real motive seems to have been one of support for the Jacobites (support for exiled King James) who was a Catholic Stuart king.

Worse still, there was a 'closing date' (deadline) for the oath, on New Years day, 1692, and what would become of this dictatorial ordinance was to be a legendary bloodbath that tainted William's reputation for all Scots and many English.

Many argue, even today, that the following incident was "minor" in comparison to other atrocities in Scots/English history. In terms of numbers, yes, it is minor. But I shall let you, the reader, decide whether or not this account of Glencoe sounds minor to you .....the eyes of a first time reader of this tragedy, rarely lie to the individual.

Having no real choice, the Highland Clan Chiefs did what was demanded. However, one minor chieftain MacIan of Clan MacDonald, got it wrong. He took his oath to Fort William, (as he claimed he was told -- and there is truly no reason to doubt his claim) , but upon arrival at Fort William, he was told that the proper place to take his oath was Inverarary.

There is ample evidence that this was done by Dalyrmple to be sure the clan Chief would arrive late. So, in the deep of cold mid-winter, he went there but arrived a few days late due to the misdirection and deep bitterly cold winter weather. The sheriff who was to receive his fealty and oath, was also late -- later even than the Chief. When the sheriff arrived, he accepted MacIans oath. What no one suspected was that the "Master of the Stair" , John Dalyrmple, had a personal grudge against the MacDonalds for their participation in the cattle reiving and supporting Jacobite causes, (the word Jacobite being a form of the word James), but most of all, because they were supporters of exiled James II and Papists. William of Orange's man, John Dalyrmple (Master of the Stair), took the view that the declaration (oath) was invalid because it was two (2) days late and ordered a Campbell chieftain to do a "job" for him. This chieftain was Robert Campbell of Glenlyon (Glen Lyon). He was to extirpate the MacDonald's that Dalyrmple detested.

John Dalrymple (1648-1707) was a judge. His father had held the position of first Viscount Stair (earl), a succesful Jurist and defender of Covenantor values. John, the son, had always been sensitive to the fact that his father had resigned his post rather than take the "Test Oath" and John had come to friendly terms with James II, the Catholic Stewart King, early on in his career. When James was forced into exile, and Lowland and English hate of the Catholic Stewarts had grown strong, [Collin's Scotland, 1996], Dalrymple had a switch of faiths. Like his father, he was an able but unscrupulous man. He was appointed by William of Orange to the posts of Lord Advocate and then Joint Secretary of State (over Scotland) with Melville in 1691. He was given the responsibility of controlling the rebellious Highland Jacobites, and lacking the troops to overcome them initially, he put into action, with his Campbell conspirators, and with the blessing of King William, a sinister plot. Sensitive to accusations by protestants that as a previous supporter of Catholic exile James, he still had Catholic leanings, and sharing with many other Lowlander Scots a fear and loathing of Highland clans, he determined to make an example of the "worst of the worst" of clans - the small reiving, and Jacobite supporting clan of MacIan MacDonalds.

Many Campbells had been working with the King's for well over a century, some say earlier, spying on other clans, reporting other clans to the king and ocassionally murdering clan members the Scottish and later the English government didn't want to deal with any longer. The Campbell's were not always willing pawns of the English. The Campbells, such a proud and powerful clan - in the days of Wallace and Bruce and over two centuries after Bannockburn (1314) , had aligned themselves solely with the Scottish Kings. This eventually led to alignment or loyalty to the (British - Union of the Crowns, 1603) English Kings. They became the eyes and ears on Highland activity for England -- they turned traitor to Highland Scotland and with their continual feuds with the MacDonalds (among others) they were more than willing to do this "job" for the government forces.

The horric incident that would scar King William of Orange's and the Campbell's names occured in 1692................

The place was the valley Glencoe, which has a bleak and forbidding atmosphere even in bright sunlight, (and it is still that way today), as if the hills remember black treachery and blood.

Glencoe is where the little community of the MacIan's, of the MacDonald clan lived. In early winter, 2 February 1692, the small clan of the MacIan of MacDonald's, generally, simply referred to as MacDonalds, were visited by the detachment of Campbells and their Highland mercenaries. From all accounts, they were received with hospitality. The Chieftain's were related by marriage. The Campbells and their troops stayed for nearly two weeks and were on friendly terms with their hosts.

At this time it needs to be pointed out that the regiment sent to deal with the MacDonalds were not only of Campbell members or clans. They had various names in their ranks from all over Scotland, but it was clear they were under the direction of the Campell commander, Robert Campbell, and he was under clear direction of Dalrymple - thus also William of Orange. To look at this incident as a clan feud or a Clan Campbell versus the Clan MacDonald would be incorrect and misleading.

Despite the fact that they did and were often at odds with each other, and did indeed feud, this was a military operation of ruthless severity ordered by British government stooges. I have referred several times in the following article to the perpetrators of the barbarous crimes as the Clan Campbell, which is not 100% factual, but almost all Scottish experts that write on Glencoe, including the highly respected John Prebble, refer to the perpetrators as members of Clan Campbell because the majority were from the various branches of the Campbell clans. If I could in good conscience call the guilty parties by some other name -- I would. But the fact remains it was a major incident in Campbell and Scottish history. To back up this claim, one needs only to look at the conspirators of the planned massacre, who after Dalrymple and Duncanson, were heads of the Breadalbane and Argyll branches of the Campbell clans in confederation with the Master of the Stair, and his boss, King William of Orange.

At least by all appearances, the visit from the Campbells was a good one. There was much drinking, feasting, dancing and harmony. The guests stayed for two weeks.

But in the still dark early morning, 13 February 1692, the guests arose and systematically set about viciously murdering their hosts. Women and children were not spared.

The Campbell's orders from King William's man in Scotland, John Dalyrmple --- "Master of the Stair" , were quite brutal and clear.

The Note read such:

To Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon ' For Their Majesties' Service' (In old English,exactly as it appeared) Sir, You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the M'Donalds, of Glencoe and putt all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues, that no man may escape. This you are to putt in execution at five o'clock in the morning precisely, and by that time, or very shortly after it, I'll strive to be att you with a stronger party. If I doe not come to you att five, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the King's special command, for the good of the country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the king's government, nor a man fitt to carry a commission in the king's service. Expecting you will not faill in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribe these with my hand.

Master of the Stair
(John Dalyrmple)


The "old fox" was the clan Chief of the MacDonalds. The "king" referred to was William, Prince of Orange.

This author isn't trying to make a judgement on either clan, both had their heroes and demons. All clans did. But the Campbells of Breadalbane, led by Sir Robert Campbell and with his men, stayed with the gracious and generous MacDonalds of Glencoe for nearly two weeks, drinking, making hay among other things, generally having a spontaneous ceilidh (kl), [an Irish or Scottish social gathering with traditional music, dancing, and storytelling]. Then suddenly, without provocation or warning, the Campbell guests stirred into action at five o'clock in the morning. They set about slaughtering all the defenseless, unarmed and helpless MacDonald's they could find, in the darkness of a black early morning of despair.

In a sudden snowstorm, many of the shocked MacDonalds escaped into the pitiless bitter cold snow and many perished from exposure. About forty members of the small clan of Ian of MacDonald , including Ian, the Chief and his family were ruthlessly slain in cold blood. Among the foully murdered were also two children and two women.

After killing the MacDonald Chief, the murderers had ruffed up and possibly violated his wife, and in the process a soldier bit the finger off her hand to get her gold ring, because she would not give it up to them. She was left to die in the cold.

The Proof is in the Conspirators.
However, some did survive, despite serious injuries. The Massacre of Glencoe enraged Scotland with its treachery and lead to years of feuding in the Highlands. England's King William III's agent John Dalrymple, 44, Earl of Stair, suppressed news of the oath taken six days late, by Ian MacDonald, chieftain of the MacDonald Clan at Glencoe, and conspired against MacDonald with Archibald [Campbell] Argyll, 41, and with John Campbell, 57, first Earl of Breadalbane.

The actual massacre was led by Sir Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. If ever more proof were needed, the above mentioned names and their involvement in this slaughter, is an indictment itself.

Just a quick glance at the above named conspirators and the man who led the fatal expedition, Sir Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, a drunken aging soldier who had had run-ins with branches of the MacDonalds previously. It is clear from the names, that even if the whole of the Clan Campbell was not involved, enough of the leadership of the clan(s) were, that the blame rightfully does fall on their shoulders despite their denial of doing anything wrong, to this very day. The claim of "We were just following orders" or "it was stricltly a military operation" has a fascist sound that does not let the clan off the hook so easily.

This atrocious slaughter carried out upon the a small clan of MacIan MacDonalds, was initiated by the King of England himself, despite his denial, his man, John Dalyrmple (Master or Earl of the Stair) and the Campbell conspirators proved beyond any doubt to the Highlanders, that England and portions of Lowland Scotland had been behind the slaughter. At least the leaders of these areas.

It isn't the number of casualties that is so shocking, rather, the manner of it, and the treachery of it. The MacDonalds opened their doors of rather modest homes, and generously let the Campbells inside their abodes. The Campbells said they were lost in the snow and asked to stay for a while, warm themselves and rest. Graciously, the MacDonald's agreed to let all the Campbell men and their Highland allies into their humble dwellings, trusting in God, that they were doing the right thing. They fed them their winter preserved meat, their wine, ale, friendship and by some accounts blossoming love among the younger folk. Glencoe is known by most people now, as the site of the massacre.

Glencoe was once was a quiet, serene place. The actions of the Campbells involved, as well as the other mercenaries fighting with them, the involvement of Breadalbane, Argyll and Dalrymple is inexcusable, even by the often brutal standards of the day.

The Campbell Chief of a decade ago tried to explain the massacre...(paraphrasing). ".....We did what we were supposed to do. If you receive an order from a superior commander -- you do it, and we did.....we were just obeying orders...".

Unfortunately, that type of black-hearted remark is exactly what keeps some names, forever cast in a dark evil world, full of inhuman things. A world of disrespect, total irregard or indifference to innocent human life. It makes for nauseous reading, but it is part of Scotland's history, therefore, a valid topic. It is even more so because the current attitude amongst the clans involved now want to bury the issue by claiming it was just a minor incident and that only 38 people really died. True, only 38 died because they botched the operation and many members of the clan did escape - else the death tally would have run into the hundreds.

Ironically, there is now a "Glen Coe Centre" which was funded, for the most part by the Clans Campbell and MacDonald to both put aside the old image of brutal slaughter (bad for tourism and bad for the clans' images) and to make a hefty profit from unsuspecting Scottish descendants coming to visit only to be told it was just a minor incident and that the past is the past now and we should just forget and move on. I had a member of Clan Campbell (a high ranking one) write to me from my website asking I take down the story as it was totally inaccurate. I challenged him to tell me the "real" events. He was unable to deny the clans involvement in the end but insisted it was strictly a military maneuver, that it wasn't a personal bloodfeud and it was very long ago.

I suppose the fact it was a military operation to annihilate innocent civlians under direct orders from a British king is alright by some. But not to this author - never. I will continue to write the truth of Scottish history and sometimes that includes the ugly facts such as Glencoe.

The black treachery of this horrible incident has inspired many songs and stories. I have included one of my favourite Scottish songs -- originally known to this author as the "MacDonald's Lament" or now more commonly known as "Massacre at Glencoe" or "Glencoe".

These are the words to the song "Massacre at Glencoe" or sometimes "Glencoe", sum up the way many Scots feel about the horribe deed better than my words ever could. These words are below:::

Members of Clan Campbell, under orders from King of England - William of Orange's men, were sent to kill all of a small family of MacDonald's under the age of seventy. No one else was to be spared. The Campbells and allies, carried out this horrific act after spending nearly two weeks living at the modest MacDonald's home in Glencoe.

These are the words to a song, immortalizing the black deed that some members, under Robert Campbell of Clan Campbell of Breadlabane, carried out on the helpless MacDonalds. The year was 1692.

{ CHORUS } Oh cruel as the snow that sweeps Glencoe, and covers the graves o' Donald (Donnell), Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe, and murdered the house of MacDonald. ------------------------------------------------------

They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat, a roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet, we wined them and dined them, they ate all our meat, and they slept in the house of MacDonald. Repeat Chorus ----

They came from fort William, with murder in mind, the Campbell had orders, King William had signed, put all to the sword, these words underlined, leave no one alive called MacDonald. Repeat Chorus ----

They came in the night, while our men were asleep, this band of Argylls, through snow soft and deep, like murdering foxes, among helpless sheep, they slaughtered the house of MacDonald. Repeat Chorus ----

Some died in their beds, at the hands of the foe, some fled in the night, and were lost in the snow, some lived to accuse him, who struck the first blow, but gone was the house of MacDonald.

Oh cruel as the snow that sweeps Glencoe, and covers the graves o' Donald, Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe, and murdered the house of MacDonald, and murdered the house of MacDonald.

Words: J. McLean
This is a traditional Scottish lament.

Fortunately some MacDonalds escaped to tell of the slaughter. Yet before we condemn the Campbells for this horrifying act, this is the same clan, several centuries earlier that helped an outlaw named Robert the Bruce, who was hiding from the English and enemy Scots alike, shortly after being made king of Scotland.

It is easy to look at the Highland Clans now, and make judgements against or for them. It was not so black and white then. Of course, what the Campbells did was terrible, and for that single act, they are remembered by many, many Scots for this incident, in a bad light.


Now, let me make this statement: this is a very sensitive subject to Scots, both pro-Campbell and con. Whilst I do not apologise for the essay (it was after all a perspective from a Highland Scots point of view) I do understand the feelings of modern day Campbells. I do NOT hold (or blame) present day Campbells responsible for the actions of their forefathers. I am sorry if anyone takes this personally. It was not intended to be a personal attack on everyone with the name of Campbell.

I have several friends who are Campbells. It was just a very sad and unfortunate incident in Scotlands history that most present day Scots would like to erase. However, for those 38 Scots that were butchered, writing the truth of history is ugly and hurts.

No present day person is responsible for any crime against the Glencoe MacDonalds. Nor are they responsible for the crimes of their distant relatives. I am simply telling history, on this ONE article, from a Scottish Highland perspective. Not all Scottish history is full of proud moments and ALL clans have their ugly sides. This one stands out because of the nature of the crime, and the fact that it was endorsed, nay, encouraged by the king himself.

Please try to look at it in this light, and not as an attack upon anyone - it was never meant as such.

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